“White House Kids” Series – The Jefferson-Hemings Four

The controversy surrounding the alleged slave children of third President Thomas Jefferson began in 1802 (when Jefferson was in office) and continued until 1998, when genetic evidence connected the descendants of a slave named Sally Hemings to descendants of the Jefferson line. The scandalous, salacious story of Jefferson of fathering slave children that worked on his Virginia estate Monticello was first published in a Richmond newspaper by one James T. Callender, who wrote that Jefferson “kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves”. Though rumors of the President’s trysts with one of his slaves had been known before his term in office began, Federalist opponents of the Democratic-Republican Jefferson ran with the story and attempted to besmirch his moral reputation. Jefferson was not the only wealthy Virginia planter at the time, however, to produce children with his female slaves, he was just the most famous to do so.

Rembrandt Peale, “Thomas Jefferson”, 1800.

Historical likeness of Sally Hemings.

A rather common phenomenon among the planter elite class of Colonial America was this occurrence of interracial slave children. These children, fathered by the master of the land with female slaves, were subject to a centuries old legal doctrine first articulated in Virginia law in 1662. Partus sequitur ventrem (“that which is born follows the womb”) was adopted by the Virginia legislature from Roman civil law mandating all children born of slave mothers would inherit her condition and become slaves themselves. Children of a white, free mother and a black father were exempt from this rule. This doctrine exempted the biological father from any and all paternal duties, and enlisted these slave children as his property. For many slave-owning colonial men, partus sequitur ventrem served as an easy and rather quick way to augment the total number of owned enslaved persons – as purchasing a slave from auction could be quite expensive, fathering children with a female slave already in your possession was a money-saving alternative. The poignant and uncomfortable reality of these relationships was their non-consensual nature; it can be assumed that carnal relations between master and slave that resulted in the conception of a child as a rule were cases of rape. However, few cases may have been the result of a strange connection between the superior and the subordinate. 

The relationship between President Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, is certainly one of these strange cases. The “strange connection” in this instance is not used to imply that the pair loved each other – this, as many things often are in the study of history, will most likely never be known, especially as Jefferson is one of the most-researched individuals in the history of early America. If historians have not yet found written accounts of Jefferson’s feelings of love towards Hemings, chances are they do not exist. The “strange connection” in this case is that Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, were half-sisters. As previously stated, miscegenation was not at all uncommon in colonial America, and Martha Jefferson’s father, John Wayles, had an affair with one of his slaves named Elizabeth Hemings. The result of their union was six quarter-African children, including Sally Hemings (Elizabeth herself was half-African) that Martha Jefferson inherited in 1773 when her father died.

Family tree showing the relation between Sally Hemings and Martha Wayles Jefferson (they shared the same father).

The physical relationship between Hemings and Jefferson is thought to have started in Paris between 1787 and 1788. At this time, Jefferson was serving as the Minister to France, and sent for his nine-year-old daughter Polly to join him, chaperoned by fourteen-year-old Sally. Historians have posited that Thomas Jefferson sought out a sexual relationship with Sally as she very strongly resembled his late wife Martha, who died in 1782; Sally is described in historical texts as being very beautiful, with long straight hair and light skin. In the memoirs of Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s children fathered by Jefferson, he writes that Jefferson was forced to beg Sally to return to Monticello with him when he was recalled to America in 1789. As Sally had gained a strong knowledge of the French language and culture, and because in France slaves could petition for their freedom and be released from forced servitude, she was hesitant to go. Madison writes that in order to convince Sally to return with him, Jefferson “promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia”.

Sally Hemings would bear a total of six children in her life, all of which are believed to have been fathered by Jefferson. It is interesting to note that each of these six births were recorded by Jefferson in his “Farm Book” (a written register of all property on or within one’s estate), but the father was not listed in the case of Sally’s children when they were listed regarding other slave children born on the property. Four of Sally’s children survived to adulthood: Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. Unlike the other slaves at Monticello, the four siblings were required to do very little harsh or strenuous physical labor that would be required on a standard Virginia plantation. Historical record shows that tobacco, wheat, and other grains were grown on Monticello during Jefferson’s life, but the four Hemings siblings played no part in cultivating or harvesting these crops; according to Madison, “We were permitted to stay about the ‘great house,’ and only required to do such light work as going on errands”.

The older two Hemings children, Beverly and Harriet, both left Monticello in 1822 when Beverly was twenty-four and Harriet was twenty-one. Beverly “ran away” from the estate but was not pursued, and Harriet left in a stagecoach headed North after longtime overseer of the Monticello estate gave her $50, presumably under instruction by Jefferson. When Jefferson died in 1826, out of the hundreds of enslaved people he owned, he only freed the Hemings family. In his will, he declares:

 “I give them their freedom. and I humbly and earnestly request of the legislature of Virginia a confirmation of the bequest of freedom to these servants, with permission to remain in this state where their families and connections are, as an additional instance of the favor, of which I have recieved so many other manifestations, in the course of my life, and for which I now give them my last, solemn, and dutiful thanks”.

Beverly, Harriet, and Eston all identified themselves as White on United States censuses. The first two siblings married White people and remained in the larger Washington D.C. metropolitan area for the remainder of their lives. Madison and Eston both married and moved their families to Chillicothe, Ohio and Eston later moved to Madison, Wisconsin to be farther away from slave catchers, who were much more prevalent after the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) was made into law. Four of Jefferson’s grandsons via Madison and Eston fought for the Union during the Civil War.

One must consider the circumstances behind Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’s affair and the inter-racial descendants it wrought. Did Jefferson truly love Sally, or was she simply a reminder of his departed wife whom he deeply cherished? If the Hemings siblings were not made to contribute to the workload of the other slaves at Monticello, why? Could it be perhaps that Jefferson himself was averse to seeing his own children (though he would never admit they were his progeny) unwillingly compelled into demeaning servitude? Unless additional information is located, the mystery shall persist. In his publication Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson writes “I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation”.

Eston Hemings.
Harriet Hemings.

Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.

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